Fact Check

Did Thomas Jefferson Say 'Two Enemies of the People are Criminals and Government'?

The alleged quote regards the Constitution's role in protecting individual rights.

Published Nov 28, 2022

Claim:
Thomas Jefferson wrote that "the two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first."
Context

Though Jefferson's writings do include the phrase "chains of the constitution," no evidence exists that he originated this broader quote. Instead, the statement appears to paraphrase a portion of an Ayn Rand essay.

A quote about the U.S. Constitution's role in limiting the power of government has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson since at least the early 2000s:

The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.

Among others, the American Enterprise Institute previously asserted that Jefferson authored the statement prior to issuing a correction. A memed version of the statement is often shared on social media. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, though, no records exist to support the claim that Jefferson authored this statement. The phrase appears, instead, to conflate at least two sources. 

First, Jefferson did use the phrase "chains of the constitution" in a draft of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which was a defense of civil liberties and states' rights condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts. In an early draft of that resolution, Jefferson wrote:

In questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.

As the Thomas Jefferson Foundation additionally notes, the "spurious" quote appears to be a close paraphrase of a portion of an essay, "Man's Rights," published by Ayn Rand in 1964:

There are two potential violators of man's rights: the criminals and the government. The great achievement of the United States was to draw a distinction between these two — by forbidding to the second the legalized version of the activities of the first.

For these reasons, the claim that Jefferson made a statement about both criminals and government being "enemies of the people" is False. 

 

Sources

Dow, Douglas C. Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/877/virginia-and-kentucky-resolutions-of-1798. Accessed 28 Nov. 2022.

"Individual Rights." The Ayn Rand Institute, https://ari.aynrand.org/issues/government-and-business/individual-rights/. Accessed 28 Nov. 2022.

McNamara, Peter. Sedition Act of 1798. https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1238/sedition-act-of-1798. Accessed 28 Nov. 2022.

"The Two Enemies of the People Are Criminals and Government...(Spurious Quotation)." Monticello, https://www.monticello.org/research-education/thomas-jefferson-encyclopedia/two-enemies-people-are-criminals-and-governmentspurious-quotation/. Accessed 28 Nov. 2022.
 

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.

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